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Researching Your Family Tree 101 
by Shelley Livaudais September 01, 2005

A step-by-step, beginner's approach to researching ancestry in the United States.

Why research your family tree?

Have you ever wondered about your ancestry? If so, you’re among a growing number of people who are using modern tools to become amateur genealogists, discovering many details about their histories - in part before even stepping outside their front doors! Even if the idea of hunting for long-lost, long-dead ancestors doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps the promise of a legacy for future generations will. It’s likely that one of your descendants – possibly even someone who hasn’t yet been born – will want to know about the family’s history, and you can be the person to provide the answers. Similarly, if you’re the last in a family line, researching or even publishing a family history can be a poignant way to make sure your clan’s mark is indelible.

Are you overwhelmed at the prospect of such a monumental task? Don’t worry; researching your family tree isn’t hard and only requires patience and investigative curiosity. The steps described below will start you on the road to unlocking your family’s past. Several of the steps don’t have to be completed in the order presented here, but each step is an important one in the road to discovery.

Step One: Establish a Goal

Before you begin the search for long lost ancestors, you should first ask yourself what your research goal is. Are you generally curious about your ancestry, or do you have a specific ancestor about whom you’d like to learn more? Is there a family story about being related to someone historically significant? Mentally answering questions like these will help direct your research and keep you from spinning your wheels.

Keep in mind that researching ancestry can be a task to last a lifetime. After all, with each generation you go back in time, the number of ancestors doubles (2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents and so on.) Don’t expect to ‘finish’ your tree – it’s impossible! - unless you have a concrete goal, such as to focus on the migration of a particular branch of your family.

Step Two: Lists

The next step in researching your family tree is to find out what you already know. Start with you and your siblings. Next, list your parents and their siblings. And so on. Go back as far as you can, and fill in any information that comes to mind; it doesn’t matter right now whether all you can remember is a relative’s first name or even a nickname. You’ll be filling in gaps later. And don’t worry about organizing it just yet; we’ll be doing that after the brainstorming session.

After you have finished writing the list, look it over. You may be surprised at how much you already knew! It will also become clear pretty quickly which branches you know the most about, and which ones need some investigation.

Step Three: Get Organized

After compiling the list of known ancestors, you should organize it so that additions can be easily and quickly made. There are many ways to do this, from notebook binders to computer software, but the important thing is that you find a method that works for you. Many people purchase ancestry software, which is readily available both online and in major computer retail stores. The benefit of these programs is that it organizes the generations for you, and calculates relationships between people. You won’t have to try to figure out how many times removed one cousin is from another. The software also allows you to add additional information about the people, such as occupations, places of residence, religious affiliations, and other notes. The downside of using computer software impacts people who do not have laptop computers; the file isn’t portable without one, and you’ll have to print out any information you want to take with you. Once you have entered a few hundred relatives (which won’t take as long as you think!) you’ll have a lot to print out.

A more low-tech solution is to purchase a few notebooks and split your information into logical divisions, such as by surname or by maternal or paternal lines. This will keep your information organized, and allows for portability. The method works equally well with manila folders, stored in a file cabinet.

Many people use a combination of software and folders or notebooks for holding their precious family data. For example, they might store the ancestral information on a computer, but keep notebooks for storing documents – such as birth, death, or marriage certificates – and pictures.

Step Four: Oral histories and Interviews

After setting up your files, incomplete though they may still be, the next step in the process is to ‘interview’ other members of your family, preferably older members who might remember the generations you never knew. Interviews are simply casual question and answer sessions in which you try to fill in the gaps in your research. It’s a good idea to record the conversation for later review, but if your subject is uncomfortable with this, copious note taking will probably work just fine. Use your research as a guide for questions, but keep in mind that interview subjects often wander in conversation as one memory leads to another, so just write down everything you hear, even if it seems insignificant, and plan to organize it later. Also, don’t challenge the accuracy of your interviewee’s information, but be prepared to verify or disprove almost everything he or she says. Often, a name or date might be slightly off, or an old ‘uncle’ might really have been simply a close family friend. Don’t worry about this, though; it’s easier to disprove something than to work from scratch. If you have trouble thinking of questions to ask your relative, you can find lists of such questions on most genealogy websites.

You can also use interviews to get more complete information about the life of your subject. Most people like to talk about their life experiences, and taking notes on these stories will yield a well-rounded, thorough family tree. You will quickly find that it is the personal memoirs and memories – not just names, dates and locations - that make the data meaningful and interesting.

Step Five: The Internet

After you’ve compiled your data, and enlisted the help of relatives, it’s time to turn to online resources. There are several major genealogy websites which offer both free and member-only information. You can search the Social Security Death Index for free on several sites, which is very useful for learning the vital statistics of many twentieth-century ancestors. You should also check out the online resources provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) because the Church has compiled genealogical data on millions of people. It’s free to use their site, which has a powerful search engine. There are also local branches of Family History Centers, also provided by the LDS Church, in which you can examine rolls of microfilm containing original census data from all available censuses (up to 1930) and other official data.

In addition to searching for records, most online resources also contain message boards and forums, designated by surname or specific geographical location. You can enter a query about an individual or branch of your family, and find other people researching the same name. It’s quite possible to make connections with distant cousins in this manner, and ultimately to obtain copies of records or photos that they might possess.

Another, extremely useful reason to begin your research online is that many sites have lists of volunteers who will photograph cemeteries or landmarks, look up records in their local courthouses, or complete other types of research where they live. This allows you to gain valuable artifacts without having to travel. People in the genealogy community tend to help each other out, and these volunteers will often do the research and mail it to you for only the cost of copies, film development, and postage. Just make sure to give specific questions, not instructions like, “Find everything you can on the O’Connell family.”

A cautionary note: like anything else on the Internet, the information presented is only as good as the person who submitted it. Many people post their family trees with little or no verification (especially those who claim links to royal families), so use caution before integrating this information into your own data. However, this warning doesn’t apply to official, digitized versions of government documents – like census, Social Security or other official vital information – whose accuracy can generally be depended upon. Also, many of the trees uploaded to the Web by researchers contain contact data, so you should always email the user and ask specific questions about their research.

Step Six: Courthouses, Libraries & Historical Societies

After you have gleaned information from websites and message boards, you may want to obtain copies of official documents such as birth, marriage and death certificates, which were generally recorded after 1900. If you can’t find a volunteer to help out, a trip to the town or city will be necessary. City or county courthouses often house these documents, and can make either certified (official) or non-official copies of the documents. Some states, however, require proof of kinship to the individual about whom you are seeking information, so find out what the requirements are before making the trip. Also, copies can often be ordered online or by phone, so you might be able to save yourself a trip.

Local libraries are often a very valuable resource for genealogical research. Most libraries have a local history or genealogy section, where you’ll usually find books about the town or even specific families, microfilm archives of local newspapers (which will include obituaries) and, occasionally, indices of vital statistics for the area. More and more libraries are beginning to digitize their holdings, but until this process is complete, your best bet is a physical visit to the library. Be sure to bring money for copies, and a notebook for taking notes.

Also, many towns often have historical societies which collect memorabilia and genealogical data from the town’s history. Here you will find volunteer experts who, if they don’t have the information you need, will be able to point you in the right direction. These volunteers will be familiar with common surnames of the area, and might even be able to introduce you to a distant relative. Keep in mind that many historical societies, especially in the New England area, are only open from late Spring through early Fall, so call ahead to make sure someone will be at the center during your visit.

Step Seven: Cemeteries

Many people don’t think about cemeteries when they first begin the search for their ancestors, but cemeteries can be a valuable destination during your investigation. In addition to possibly providing the only physical representation left of the people you’re seeking, they can also help to confirm dates, relationships and locales. Often, you will find tombstones of relatives you didn’t know about: children who died young, or a sibling of someone you’re researching. Generally, cemeteries have offices in which you can inquire about your ancestors – most keep good records – but don’t rule out a row-by-row search for your relatives. Once you can get past the eerie feeling of walking among the dead, you might find that cemeteries can be as peaceful as they are important for your research.

Step Eight: What to do with your family tree information

So, now that you’ve started to collect data of all kinds, what do you do with it? If you have a generally complete account of a certain branch of your family, you might consider publishing the information in book form. There are also many books on the market to direct you should you decide to write a family memoir. Many small presses cater to genealogy clients who will be printing small numbers of copies, for reasonable rates. You may also want to donate a copy to the appropriate local library or historical society so that others who might be doing research can benefit from yours.

If you still need more information before publishing, sending blank questionnaires to members of your family might be the quickest way to gain information about them and their immediate family members. This can also be helpful when preparing for a family reunion; you can take the information and pictures, and post them, tree-style, on a wall for the reunion guests to peruse, and you can compile the information into booklets for them to take home from the reunion. Not only is this a nice parting gesture, but you’ve now insured that a copy of the family’s ancestral information resides with each family group.

Whatever you decide to do with your information, you should treat it as a valuable possession. If you have used computer software to log all your relatives, back up the files regularly, or even put it on a CD to be kept in a safety deposit box or fire safe.

Also, whether or not you officially publish the data, you should consider at least printing it out and sharing it with interested family members. They might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of dates and names, but there’s bound to be an interesting story or two about your family’s history to intrigue even your most cynical kin. After all, the events, stories and memories are the reason why you began the search for your family’s history in the first place.


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